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Job crisis broadens. After MLA reports collapsing market for language professors, history and economics groups reveal huge drops in faculty positions.
January 4, 2010

The job crisis for faculty jobs -- especially for new Ph.D.'s looking for tenure-track jobs -- is spreading.

Data being released this week by the American Historical Association and the American Economic Association reveal sharp drops in the number of available positions in their respective disciplines. Coming just weeks after the Modern Language Association revealed historic drops in the availability of jobs for English and foreign language professors, the data show that while new English and foreign language Ph.D.'s may have a particularly tough time finding employment, they are by no means alone.

The number of jobs listed with the American Historical Association fell 23.8 percent in 2008-9 and the total jobs listed -- 806 -- was the smallest in a decade. And the 23.8 percent figure doesn't reflect the extent of the drop: A survey by the AHA of those departments that posted jobs found that about 15 percent of searches were called off after positions were listed.

And the American Economic Association, which started its annual meeting Sunday, is reporting a drop in new academic jobs listed of 19 percent in the 2009 calendar year. While plenty of new Ph.D. economists seek employment outside of academe, many of the companies that hire them are also facing financial turmoil. The drop in the association's job postings for work outside of academe was even greater: 24 percent.

Both fields are reporting stable or increasing production of Ph.D.'s, so demand for openings that do exist is expected to be particularly intense. Not all academic jobs are listed with disciplinary associations. But the associations' data -- which use slightly different time frames -- are considered excellent proxies for hiring trends; many of the jobs they do miss are off the tenure track, and thus are not those most sought by those on the market.


In history, the decline in jobs may be coming at a time of a boom in enrollments in Ph.D. programs. A survey by the AHA of its departments found a 17 percent increase in the last year in the number of new doctorates awarded -- the largest one-year increase since the association started collecting data in 1975.

A report by the AHA, noting the job declines and increased Ph.D. production, says that these "diverging trends mark the largest gap between new jobs and new Ph.D.'s since the job crisis of the mid-1990s. This situation is unlikely to improve in the current year, as job ads have continued to decline and the number of students in Ph.D. programs remains relatively high."

The history job market -- like those in many disciplines -- is actually a series of job markets in different geographic and subject areas. Openings for historians working on the United States and on the Middle East both fell by more than 30 percent, while most fields saw declines in the range of 20 percent.

Two areas were relatively untouched by the declines: African history (down 4.4 percent) and Asian history (off 3.1 percent). But those are two areas that many history departments have felt for years were not receiving enough attention, and that generally have far fewer slots to start with than is the case for American or European history.

American history programs may be particularly challenged in placing Ph.D.'s. The AHA report notes that, for the last 10 years, the proportion of new Ph.D.'s who list U.S. history as their specialty has consistently been around 40 percent. But the percentage of history jobs seeking that specialty has been declining, from around 35 percent in the 1990s to just under 30 percent this year.

Robert B. Townsend, assistant director for research and publications at the AHA, said in an interview that the way jobs are being described may raise the bar even more for candidates. Townsend said that the norm in past years was to give a general area and then a specialty within that general area, so you might have a job teaching U.S. history, with a preference for hiring a scholar of the colonial era or of 20th century America or some other period.

Now, Townsend said he is seeing many job notices that suggest departments are trying to deal with shortages in two diverse areas with a single hire, presumably because of lost slots. "So they want a specialist in U.S. history who can also teach a survey course on Latin American history, or they want a Latin Americanist who can also teach African history."

Townsend said that it's hard to predict the right combination of skills and specialties that will make a given candidate more attractive on the job market, especially since it takes so long to earn a doctorate that market demands can shift. Generally, however, he said the trends point to the need for flexibility. Townsend earned his doctorate at George Mason University, which is known for its emphasis on new media in history teaching and research. And he said that he thought new doctorates could benefit from digital work, which is in demand not only for faculty jobs but also for many public history jobs.

Data in the AHA study show just how varied the job market is in competitiveness for certain kinds of positions. While there are long odds for any specialty, the decade just completed saw a sharp increase in the applicants per position for jobs focused on European and U.S. history, while other subfields saw relatively stable levels of competitiveness.

Average Number of Applicants Per Position in History, by Geographic Area

2001-2 2007-8 2008-9
Africa 42 40.0 37.2
Asia 42 38.0 39.7
Europe 41 71.0 80.0
Latin America 77 38.0 59.4
Middle East and Islamic World 66 42.0 33.8
U.S. and Canada 76 72.0 94.6
World and Transnational 66 56.0 66.2

While the AHA report notes that the number of new Ph.D.'s in history is increasing, the report also draws attention to where those increases are occurring. The association grouped enrollments in Ph.D. programs in three categories according to the rankings of programs by the National Research Council. Over the last 20 years, enrollment in top ranked programs has actually gone down, while the enrollment gains have come in new doctoral programs that aren't yet ranked.

Ph.D. Enrollments in History Programs, by Type of Institution

Year Top 30 Programs Lower Ranked Programs New/Unranked
1989-90 4,152 5,365 1,134
1991-2 4,144 6,159 1,460
1993-4 4,884 6,397 1,693
1995-6 4,857 6,612 2,234
1998-9 4,527 5,741 2,236
2000-1 3,912 5,405 2,192
2002-3 3,710 5,223 2,443
2004-5 3,962 5,544 2,758
2006-7 3,826 5,255 2,545
2008-9 3,786 5,423 2,592

Townsend cautioned against interpreting these data as suggesting that the problem in the job market arises from less prestigious programs. He said that, for years, many programs at public institutions that haven't been considered tops in the field nationally have done very well with placement -- but they have tended to see their new doctorates land positions at regional state universities or community colleges or in museums. There are very different markets for different programs, he said, and the data haven't been analyzed enough to see whether some of those markets have deteriorated more than others.

One area the AHA report says may be promising for new Ph.D.'s is employment outside of academe. But here again, there is an apparent mismatch problem.

"As our recent study of public history professionals demonstrates, history Ph.D.'s employed outside of higher education are generally quite satisfied with their jobs and earning salaries comparable to, if not better than, the salaries in academia," the report says. "Unfortunately, very few programs prepare their students for jobs outside of academia, placing most of their emphases and expectations on preparing their students for the relatively small -- and at least for the present, diminishing -- number of jobs at research universities. Until programs reduce the number of students in their programs and revise the culture of history doctoral training, the sense of crisis in the job market for history Ph.D.'s seems only likely to grow worse for the foreseeable future."

An added disappointment to AHA leaders is that the shortage of jobs is coming at a time that the diversity of the Ph.D. pool is increasing, with more women and minority scholars earning doctorates than has been the case in recent years.

Choices for Grad Students

Elise Lipkowitz, co-chair of the AHA's Graduate and Early Career Committee and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Michigan, said the committee is conducting a survey of grad students and new doctorate recipients to find out how they are dealing with the terrible job market.

Anecdotally, she said she is hearing about several strategies. "Some Ph.D. candidates are delaying degree completion, postdoc applications are up dramatically, and recent Ph.D.'s seem to be preparing for the reality that they may not obtain a job or postdoc for 2010-11 and are exploring ways to sustain their research and writing outside the traditional setting of an academic post," she said.

What should departments be doing? Lipkowitz said she's not focused on the debate over graduate admissions. With new doctoral students taking six to eight years to finish their degrees, reducing class size isn't "a particularly effective short-term strategy," she said.

The focus, she said, should be "how to keep new Ph.D.'s without jobs in the game." She added that departments and associations "need to find new ways to help recent Ph.D.'s without jobs pursue their research programs and prepare their scholarship for publication."


Unlike history, economics is a field where substantial numbers of non-academic jobs are regularly taken by new Ph.D.'s -- and that career path is not considered an oddity. Still, however, about two-thirds of job notices in the fields are from academic institutions.

Among four-year colleges, the decline in positions was more pronounced at institutions without doctoral programs (down 31 percent) than those with doctoral institutions (down 8 percent).

As has been the case in recent years, the top specialization -- by a substantial margin -- was mathematical and quantitative methods. It was followed by microeconomics and macroeconomics and monetary economics. The sharpest decline in specialty being requested was international economics, which fell from being the second most popular field in 2008 to fifth for 2009.

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